Among scientists, ethnobotany is the study of how different cultures view and utilize plants. Among non-scientists, “ethnobotany” is a handy buzzword for legitimizing tripping balls.

Just The Facts

  1. Ethnobotany is the study of cultural knowledge and use of plants.
  2. People use plants for a variety of applications.
  3. Some of those applications are fun.
  4. The funnest ones are illegal.

Ethnobotany, from Rubber to Hippies

In 1941, Harvard biologist Richard Evans Schultes was sent to South America on assignment to find new sources of latex, the tree sap that gives us rubber. The project was supposed to take twelve months.

Where condoms come from

Twelve years later, Schultes emerged from the Amazon rainforest armed with over 30,000 herbarium specimens, about 300 of which were previously unknown to science; and a handful of rubber tree alternatives (the rubber industry gave him a polite "thanks" and promptly ignored all of his research - to this day). Prior to Schultes' fieldwork in the jungle, ethnobotany was a dry and studious field of inquiry that produced a lot of useless data. Afterward, ethnobotany was transformed into a hands-on anthropological discipline that produces useful information about plant-based foods, materials, and medicines.

And this

It also produced hippies, or at least it helped produce them - we're pretty sure some credit belongs to Full Metal Jacket[citation needed]. Among Dr. Schultes' many discoveries were psilocybin-containing "magic" mushrooms, a hallucinogenic specie of morning glory that the Aztecs called "ololiuqui" (co-discovered with Albert Hoffman, who later synthesized LSD), and a legendarily potent hallucinogenic drink called "ayahuasca" that's so serious most hippies won't even try it. And those people will try anything! Schultes' research kicked up a generational shitstorm of drug experimentation, for which he continually tried to blame Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey.

We can relate. Last week someone discovered a way to have liquor shipped straight into an office building via internet and suddenly it's our fault the downstairs offices are flooded.

Among Schulte's most prominent successors are Mark J. Plotkin and Wade Davis. Plotkin did most of his doctoral research in South America, getting to know indigenous peoples as close friends and eventually founding the Amazon Conservation Team. Which is worth like so many points. Davis wrote a book that was later turned into a "cult classic" piece of shit horror movie (see next sections), became an Explorer-In-Residence for the National Geographic Society, wrote a bunch more books about vanishing cultures and stuff, made some documentaries, got a handful of humanitarian awards, wrote some more books, and... he's awesome, is what we're trying to say.

Also, he's Canadian

Also, he's Canadian

Today, most medical research takes place in laboratories rather than jungles because people like Plotkin got sick and tired of the medical industry taking advantage of natives. There also don't appear to be any more field researchers combing the world's forests for new drugs - not professionally, anyway. Teenagers still do it from time to time, but they don't get NSF grants for their work. They get poisoned.

Fun fact: "magic" mushrooms look just like "shitty" ones

Ethnobotany in Books

One River, by Wade Davis

Summary: A broad-spectrum masterpiece of awesome that follows Davis and the late Tim Plowman as they travel the jungles of South America in search of sacred plants, interwoven with historical lessons and references to the jungle adventures of Richard Evans Schultes. It doesn't matter whether or not you give half a damn about science; if you like real-life adventure stories, you'll like this book.

Should have been called: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Plants

Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, by Mark J. Plotkin

Summary: This is Plotkin's memoir and magnum opus, and it follows him as he travels throughout South America hunting giant crocodilians, mixing arrow poisons, learning harsh truths about missionaries, getting zonked on indigenous entheogens, and just generally doing a bunch of shit that's way cooler than anything most people will ever do. And all in the name of science!

Should have been called: Tales of the Most Fun Job Ever

The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers, by Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hoffman (later expanded by Christian Ratsch)

Summary: Schultes and Hoffman published this book in 1979 to quantify and present years of careful, tedious, scientific research on the ritual and medicinal uses of psychoactive plants in various cultures. It's long and boring for anyone who isn't interested in science, although it contains a lot of neat photos, but as a piece of popular scientific literature it is absolutely unbeatable. Evidently it also become sort of a Hippie Bible, which pissed Schultes off no end.

Should have been called: How to use Legitimate Science to Regrettably Create an Entire Subculture of Filthy Degenerates: A Memoir

The Serpent and the Rainbow, by Wade Davis

Summary: Davis travels to Haiti to investigate the phenomena of Voodoo (actually "vodoun") witchcraft and zombification from a botanical perspective. Yes: real voodoo and real zombies. No shit. Davis eventually finds what he believes is an effective plant- and animal-based concoction for zombifying people, and if you think that's a good idea you're fucking crazy.

Should have been called: Never, Ever go to Haiti

Ethnobotany in Movies

The Fountain

Summary: Hugh Jackman plays a scientist who discovers a tree in Mayan Guatemala that grants eternal life and/or cures cancer. Or something.

What it was meant to show: Life is fleeting, and eternity would be lonesome, so cherish the time you have.

What you really learned: "So, wait... is that dude, like, flying through space? In a bubble? With a tree?"

Medicine Man

Summary: Sean Connery plays Sean Connery playing a scientist who discovers the cure for cancer in a tropical rainforest but then loses it forever after developers set fire to the region where it's located.

What it was meant to show: The rainforest is an amazing pharmacopeia of plants and animals that can be used for food, fun, and, most importantly, medicine. But it's fragile, so take good care of it.

What you really learned: "We're fucked."

The Serpent and the Rainbow

Summary: Bill Pullman plays Wade Davis (see last section), who goes to Haiti to investigate the Voodoo zombie phenomenon and gets turned into a goddamn zombie!

What it was meant to show: Nothing, really - just typical horror-porn.

What you really learned: "Never, ever go to Haiti!"

Ethnobotany in Your Life


Botanical origins: tree bark from Asia

What it does: reduces swelling, helps with hangovers


Botanical origins: Amazonian arrow poison

What it does: anesthetizes surgical patients, makes for damn fine tranquilizer darts (which may not be a part of your life, but that's only because you're boring)


Botanical origins: tree bark from South America

What it does: treats malaria, is the "tonic" part of "gin and tonic"


Botanical origins: poppies (like in The Wizard of Oz)

What it does: kills pain, calms you right the fuck down


Botanical origins: tree sap from South America

What it does: keeps cars from just sitting there, prevents abortions